Review: “Goodbye Christopher Robin”

2.5 out of 5 stars.

A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh books are among the most beloved children’s tales of all time, which might be a big reason why the real story behind them is such a downer.  Director Simon Curtis’ film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” details the creation of the famous bear, and explores its impact not on the world, but on a family, but what unfolds is more horror than drama.

The film opens soon after the end of World War I.  A.A. (Alan) Milne (Domnhall Gleeson) is a successful playwright and author, with a bubbly wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie); together, they are a hit in high London society, but Alan is plagued with PTSD from his experience as a soldier in the war.  Several years pass, in which Daphne gives birth to their son, Christopher Robin (nicknamed Billy Moon) and Alan struggles with his writing, prompting him to move his family from the city to a quiet cottage in Sussex.

“Goodbye Christopher Robin” is as much a peek into upper class English parenting in the early twentieth century as it is a story about the creation of a classic story.  Soon after their son’s birth, the Milne’s hire a nanny, Olive (Kelly Macdonald), to care for him.  It’s obvious that they don’t know how to handle him; one scene shows Alan hesitantly and awkwardly cradling his crying child while his wife ignores his screams.  A montage advances Billy to age eight (played by the remarkable Will Tilson), showing the years passing by as Olive and Billy watch his parents repeatedly leave home for a night on the town.  By the time the family moves to the countryside, they are virtually strangers.  It’s only when Daphne, who heads back to London after being fed up with Alan’s inability to write anything, and Olive, forced to briefly leave to care for her ailing mother, leave Alan home alone with Billy for a few days that the father really engages with his son.  Their strolls through the beautiful English woodlands surrounding their home and the games they play with Billy’s teddy bear, Edward, inspire Alan to write stories about their adventures, enlisting his friend and fellow WWI veteran Ernest Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) to illustrate them.

It’s after the publication and immediate success of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories that the relationship Alan had built up with his son begins to disintegrate.  Billy is whisked along on a series of interviews and photo ops; people start calling him Christopher Robin, a name he has not gone by in his whole life, leading to a bit of an identity crisis for the eight-year-old.  At one point, he is brought to a toy store, and told that all he has to do is have a tea party with the winners of a contest; when the doors open, dozens of flashbulbs fire, while a seemingly endless number of children (and adults) surround him, yelling and cheering.  Curtis shoots many of the scenes from Billy’s perspective, keeping the camera at his level; this, accompanied by the look of extreme discomfort on Billy’s face, make these scenes horrifying to watch, even more so because his parents, so swept up in the glamour and success, are completely oblivious to the fact that they are basically the worst parents on the planet.

Goodbye Christopher Robin 2
Domnhall Gleeson and Margot Robbie and Alan and Daphne Milne

That’s one of the most glaring problems with “Goodbye Christopher Robin:” Alan and Daphne’s likableness, lack thereof.  For such an emotional story, there’s not a whole lot of real emotion.  Gleeson and Robbie are great, but from the get-go, the attitude of Alan and definitely of Daphne is off-putting because they are so self-centered.  Daphne in particular is so cold and demanding that it is hard to imagine what is even keeping the two of them together.  In a way, she is also suffering from post-traumatic stress from the war; when she finds out her child is boy, she immediately decides that she cannot love him, because she couldn’t stand for him to grow up and go off to war like her husband did.  But it’s impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for her as she gleefully forces her child into the public spotlight and insults and condemns his nanny, Olive, for doing absolutely nothing wrong—in fact, Olive is really the only sympathetic character in the piece, the glue just barely holding it all together.  Meanwhile, Alan often goes from having a flashback to the war to playing with his child to mingling in society with little perceptible shift in feeling; this could be brushed off as a trait of polite English society, but it saps a lot of warmth from the story.

Billy grows up to resent his parents, feeling that they exploited his childhood.  Another montage shows Billy aging from eight to 18 (now played by another wonderful young actor, Alex Lawther) as he is bullied at school through the years for being Christopher Robin.  A final confrontation with his father about how he sold his childhood to the world—things that he thought were special and just happening between the two of them—is bitter and sad, but the real life story is even sadder.  Billy never took any royalties from the vast amount of income generated by Winnie-the-Pooh, hating the idea that his childhood bear was commercialized; he and his mother refused to see each other during the last 15 years of her life.

Despite its big name actors, gorgeous cinematography, and it’s behind-the-scenes look at the real story behind such a famous fictional character, “Goodbye Christopher Robin” is a mediocre film that perhaps would have worked better as an above-average piece for Masterpiece Theatre or the BBC.  The film really shines in the scenes prior to the creation of Winnie-the-Pooh, when it’s just Alan and Billy playing in the woods, and we get a glimpse of all these things that would end up in the Pooh books later, but for now are just lovely moments between a father and son.  The film has trouble balancing that feeling of childlike wonder with the subsequent exploitation of it; sadly, that magical feeling never makes an appearance for the remainder of the movie.  Much is crammed into the film, to the point where by the time Billy is older and we are approaching the end of the movie, the filmmakers didn’t seem to know how to proceed, opting for a rather contrived resolution that doesn’t really resolve anything.  It isn’t until the film’s final scene—set in the midst of World War II—that we get a sense of the positive impact Winnie-the-Pooh had on the world.  Like I mentioned before, this is more of a personal story of the impact this story had on its creator and his family, but that story is about as far from the prettiness of the Hundred Acre Wood imaginable.

Runtime: 107 minutes. Rated PG.

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